This article was published in Dawn, The Review, March 15-21, 2001. Since then, I have reconsidered my opinion about how the personality of Emperor Jahangir may have influenced his two grandsons, Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb. I hope to offer my revised opinion in a separate post soon. I have not changed anything in the article here, except correcting a few typos and standardizing the spellings of names: Jahangir and Shahjahan instead of Jehangir and Shahjehan of the original.
One hot summer afternoon in August 1659, Prince Dara Shikoh was executed by his younger brother Aurangzeb, who had ascended the throne two months earlier. Dara had been found guilty of heresy: he had proclaimed that Hinduism and Islam were two sides of the same coin.
A liberal historian is compelled to stop at this juncture of the story which denotes a significant turn of events in the House of Taimur, and wonder whether the history of the subcontinent could have been different if Dara had ascended the throne instead of his puritanical brother Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb’s subsequent polices are supposed to have widened the gulf between the Hindus and the Muslims, setting them on the road to separation, antagonism and eventually, Partition. However, to think about Dara’s accession to throne is, at best, a liberal historian’s daydream.
Dara was born on 20 March, 1615. He was the eldest son of Prince Khurram (later Shahjahan), the heir apparent of the emperor Jahangir. As the favourite of a father who had the capacity of smothering his loved ones with excess of affection, Dara had an over-protected childhood, and clearly grew up at a disadvantage against his younger brothers, Shuja, Aurangzeb and Murad. He was, however, about twelve years old when along with Aurangzeb (three years younger) he was sent as a hostage to his grandfather after the failure of Shahjahan’s revolt.
Jahangir was emotionally different from Shahjahan, and it is quite tempting to assume that this had a lasting impact on both the children. Aurangzeb distinctively developed a dislike for his grandfather’s moody outbursts and fell more in love with the calculated meanness of his own father. Dara, it is very likely, idealized the freedom with which Jahangir could disregard conventions and sometimes even common sense whenever there was a storm within. It is also very likely, that Jahangir was Dara’s primary role model for the eccentricities that marked Dara’s own life style, especially his worldviews in the later days.
When Shahjahan took over the throne in 1628, he made no secret of his desire for Dara to inherit the throne from him. Mumtaz Mahal, Shahjahan’s queen and Dara’s mother, died four years later and while we don’t have any account of Dara’s reaction to the loss of his mother we know from fact that Dara usually found himself more at ease in female company. Hence he might have held a close attachment with his mother. In any case, when he got married in 1637, he immediately developed an obsession for his wife that was to last till her death shortly before his own.
Life must have been difficult for an over-protected prince in a Mughal household in view of the fact that the Mughal law was so vague about the rule of succession. This meant that Shahjahan’s desire for Dara to be his successor wasn’t enough (though Shahjahan thought that it would be). Dara had to prove his own mettle in the scorching heat of the day, and this he never got an opportunity to do.
Shahjehan was too fond of him and would never let him be on his own. With his excessively sensitive nature, Dara most probably developed some sort of complex about how others viewed him, and it is said that when the second prince Shuja was given a rank and an assignment, Dara couldn’t control himself any longer and left the court in tears. Shahjahan was deeply moved and bestowed a rank upon Dara too, but he still didn’t given him any assignment.
It is almost certain that Shahjahan tried to make up for Dara’s limited opportunities for on-hand experience by departing to him the golden rules of governance which he himself had followed all his life. “A man of wisdom never takes an action which if gone wrong could turn the tables on him,” was Shahjahan’s favourite personal quote. This maxim served well for him, but it possibly became a luggage that was too cumbersome for Dara’s moody nature. We find effects of this training in Dara’s writings, though somewhat in a twisted manner. When speaking of mystical experiences, he seldom reflects the peace and calm of the soul but always seems in a hurry to jump upon conclusions, trying to drive his point home quickly before the reader might get a chance to think on his own. It is not difficult to guess that a perpetual anxiety was the dominant mode of life for this unfortunate, enlightened prince.
With the field of action declared out of bounds for him, Dara naturally turned to the domain of ideas. In 1640 he was initiated formally into the Quadri Order of Sufism, and the same year he came up with his first book, Sakinatul Auliya. It was a collection of biographical sketches of notable Muslim saints. That Dara’s first preoccupation was biographical writing is perhaps indicative of his need for mirrors to his own existence. He grew particularly fond of the Sufi ideas about losing one’s self into a higher consciousness. Playing a pun upon his pen name, Quadri, Dara exclaims in one of his verses, Quadri gasht Quadir-e-Mutlaq Ezpae-e-her fana kamal-e-baqa ast. (The Slave of the Omnipotent (Quadri) became the Omnipoetnt Himself (Quadir): In the wake of every annihilation lies the perfection of existence).
Dara’s intellectual pursuits took a steep turn upon his meeting Baba Lal Bairagi, a Hindu Gnostic. Dara has recorded his conversations with Baba Lal in a short book titled, Mukalama Baba Lal wa Dara Shikoh. The book was a manifestation of his inspiration to embark upon comparative theology. “The whole spirit of the practice of idol-worshipping is for the concentration of mind,” Baba Lal explained to Dara Shikoh when the latter asked him about the significance of idol-worship. “One who possesses the knowledge of the spirit does not concern about the form, but whosoever is devoid of inner consciousness, must therefore, attach himself to external form. Just as little unmarried girls play with dolls, but when they get married they do not concern themselves with it. Such is the case of idol-worship. Those who do not possess knowledge of the spirit would certainly strive for its acquisition through medium of the form. As soon as they gain inner consciousness, they would discard the form.”
As Dara Shikoh proceeded to experiment further with mysticism, somewhere along the way he became oblivious of the borderline that divides imagination from reality. While that could be an adorable characteristic in a poet, it could prove extremely dangerous in a prince.
Historians have recorded many sad anecdotes about the Mughal invasion of Qandahar in 1655, where Shahjahan finally agreed to allow Dara to lead an army. There were many brilliant officers to accompany him, but Dara lacked the capacity to benefit from their experience, as he found them inferior to himself on an intellectual plain. It must have been on this campaign that the otherwise tolerant and benevolent price earned the reputation of being “arrogant, conceited and too full of himself.”
One famous incident from the campaign to Qandahar describes how a con-man approached Dara with claims of miraculous powers. “Dara was told that if this master could be provided with a homosexual boy, three year old wine and certain other requirements, he could summon genies for help by writing secret formulas with the blood of the boy mixed with wine.”
Khafi Khan describes the anecdote from a contemporary source. “Dara agreed to provide these requirements and upon hearing this news, most homosexual boys left the camp overnight. In any case, a boy was fetched from somewhere who met the criterion and was given over to the con-man along with the other items of his prescription. The con-man spent a certain period of time in fun and frolic, hoping that the Mughal soldiers would be able to conquer in the meanwhile. When the specified period was over, he fled the camp and joined the enemy ranks.”
The casualties on the Mughal side increased with each day, but all Dara had to say to his soldiers was, “I am not like my brother Aurangzeb who twice gave up the siege of Qandahar. I will personally see each one of you executed if we can’t get this fort.” When one of his officers suggested that once they have captured the fort, they should also go ahead to massacre its entire population, Dara remarked, “No way. The king ought to be an ocean of mercy. The enemy can’t be denied pardon if he asks for it.” Clearly, here was a soul hopelessly caught in the web of its fantasies. Shahjahan had to recall the expedition after the number of casualties reached a record high.
It is not clear whether Dara learnt any lesson from his Qandahar expedition. Most probably he didn’t. In his utmost sincerity he must have been thinking that he was competent enough to take the fort and the fault was all with his soldiers, officers and perhaps the stars. For one thing, he resumed his pursuit of theology with more fervour than ever before.
The very next year he came out with Majmaul Bahrain (The Mingling of the Two Oceans), a treatise on the similarities between Islam and Hinduism, and possibly the most astonishing work ever to be produced in the field of comparative religion in the subcontinent. The emphasis of the work is on finding equivalents, Muslim equivalents for Hindu terminology, such as “Qayamat” for “mahapraloka,” and so on. On a psychological level, it can be seen as an outburst of Dara’s sublimated rage against the society he had lived in, and as an example of eccentric behaviour it is very distinctively reminiscent of his grandfather Jahangir. On an intellectual level, the work lacks depth and profundity but is commendable as a very original attempt to start a dialogue between the theologians of the two religions.
A year later, in 1657, Dara Shikoh came out with his greatest masterpiece: Sirr-e-Akbar (The Great Secret), a translation of the Upanishads into Persian. Completed in 1657 with the help of several pandits from Veranasi Dara Shikoh’s translation of Upanishads is usually regarded in high esteem by the scholars in that field. It is also suggested by some historians that the Persian translation of Upanishad probably made it most accessible to the Europeans of the time as they were more familiar with the Persian language than they were with Sanskrit.
In his translation, Dara went ahead to replace the Sanskrit with Arabic terms, based on the glossary he had prepared in his previous work. Perhaps the most shocking statement of his concerns the comparison of a Quranic verse with certain meanings reflected in the Upanishads.
Although Dara Shikoh never intended a wider publication of his works on comparative religion, which he claimed that he had written for his own understanding and for those closely associated to him, the orthodox faction at the court never forgave him for making that outrageously blasphemous assertion.
The War of Succession between Dara Shikoh and his brothers is pretty well known. In 1658, Shahjahan fell ill and Dara took over as the acting emperor, just as was expected of him. Aurangzeb quickly made a coalition with Murad and defeated Dara Shikoh at the famous Battle of Samogarh. Dara made an unsuccessful attempt at escaping to Persia, and perhaps even in that he was trying to mirror his great ancestor Humayun. He lost his wife on the way and soon afterwards was routed by one of his trusted friends who turned him over to Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb then proceeded to proclaim himself formally as the emperor while Shahjahan lay helpless in his prison. Two months after his coronation in June 1659, Aurangzeb enacted a speedy trial of Dara Shikoh where the judges declared him a heretic and the unfortunate prince was condemned to death.
It is said that when Dara saw his executioners approaching him he declared that a prince must never die without putting up a brave fight. A kitchen knife was all he could lay his hands on, and he went ahead fighting the swords of his aggressors with this pitful weapon. He was eventually assassinated and it is said that the city of Delhi was shrouded in official mourning when the body of Dara Shikoh was displayed in its streets. He was later laid at rest, quite aptly, inside the premises of Humayun’s mausoleum.